Paula Cooper with a work by Lynda Benglis Date TBC
Paula Cooper with a work by Lynda Benglis in 1971

Even Paula Cooper, the Manhattan contemporary art dealer who has been in business more than 50 years, still sees things that overwhelm her. “The Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art is truly a revelation. It is brilliantly selected and intelligently installed,” she says, casually dropping in that she once commissioned the late Pop artist to make a portrait in Las Vegas.

This week the 80-year-old gallerist will show works by artists including Christian Marclay, Cecily Brown and Justin Matherly at the 17th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. But the glitzy, big-bucks Florida fair is a world away from the New York of 1968. Fifty years ago, Cooper launched her eponymous gallery on Prince Street in SoHo with a politically charged show benefiting the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

“Proceeds of sales were split 50-50 between the artists and the committee. The gallery received nothing,” she tells me over the phone. “What a way to start a business!”

So how did she keep the enterprise running? “I mostly did everything myself and depended on the kindness of unsuspecting visitors to help me,” she says. Cooper also insists that she did not seek investors, stressing that she “just wanted to do things on her own”.

Cooper marked the gallery’s 50th anniversary this year by re-staging the exhibition of 1968, featuring works by many of the original artists, including Bill Bollinger, Jo Baer and Sol LeWitt. A portion of the proceeds were donated this time to another charity, March for our Lives, the organisation campaigning for better gun control. Mentioning the anti-firearms body sparks a diatribe against Donald Trump. “I can’t bear to call him president,” she retorts.

Mention Cooper to other dealers and they often cite her activist stance along with her championing of Minimalism. “She is totally ethical and I’d go so far as to say that she is the epitome of everything that is right in the art world,” says the New York-based dealer Sean Kelly.

The 50th anniversary show closed last month, capping a turbulent time. After a fire which affected Cooper’s gallery on West 21st Street, she relocated to temporary premises on West 26th Street. “I’d say 2018 has been my most difficult year, mainly because of the fire.”

She outlines her life story for me, including her childhood in Charleston, South Carolina, still severely segregated. Her teenage years were itinerant due to her father’s government postings, residing in Paris, Athens and Munich, where she “lived” in the museums and galleries. Returning to the US, she was keen to carve a niche in the burgeoning Manhattan art scene of the 1950s.

Cooper ran her own space, the Paula Johnson Gallery (her maiden name), from 1964 to 1966, where the Land Art trailblazer Walter De Maria launched his first solo show in New York. She then worked for Park Place, a co-operative of five painters and five sculptors, including Mark di Suvero, Robert Grosvenor and David Novros, who remain part of her gallery stable.

She opened the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1968 and moved to Prince Street before it became an art mecca, relocating in 1973 to Wooster Street in SoHo. In 1995 the gallery moved to Chelsea, then another new terrain for art spaces.

Along the way, Cooper has witnessed first-hand the inexorable growth of the contemporary art market. She cites key moments such as the Scull sale of 1973, when the taxi cab entrepreneur Robert Scull sold more than 50 works by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at Sotheby Parke-Bernet auction house in New York.

The Scull auction is now considered to be the first step toward the contemporary art boom of the 21st century (Johns’ work “Double White Map”, priced at $10,000 in 1965, fetched $240,000, reflecting this shift). “I was there because I was part of that small art world,” Cooper says. “There had never before been a single evening sale devoted to contemporary art. It even included an artist as young as De Maria.

“Today, most collectors are thinking, ‘will this increase in value?’ That aspect is always lurking. It’s not good,” Cooper says, exclaiming suddenly: “We have even taken on a public relations firm; I used to think PRs were evil!”

Other challenges prevail, too. But she seems fairly relaxed about a quandary faced by established and emerging gallerists alike: losing artists to the dominant global mega-dealers (Charles Gaines switched to Hauser & Wirth earlier this year, for instance).

“Artists have left the gallery but we’re still friends. I like to help artists,” she says, reminiscing about key figures who have departed, some of whom have returned. The sculptor Joel Shapiro joined Pace Gallery in 1992, for instance, but also shows work with Cooper.

Carey Young, an artist who works in a variety of media, is represented by Cooper. “Paula said to me once, after she had given me a lot of leeway right before a solo show, ‘You have to trust the artist’, and no one ever says that.”

Key figures continue to join the fold. In an intriguing cross-gallery collaboration, Cooper now co-represents the artist Jennifer Bartlett, who makes works on gridded steel plates, with Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York (both will show works by Bartlett at Art Basel Miami Beach). In another coup, Cooper now co-represents the estate of the renowned German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

“Artists’ careers fluctuate,” she says. “Donald Judd, whose work we had shown through the years in group shows, approached us in the mid-1980s. We continually showed his works and collectors returned, recognising his importance. ‘We finally get it!’ they told me.” A milestone exhibition was held in the Wooster Street space in 1995.

Cooper also talks about Carl Andre, who joined the gallery in 1978; she has since organised more than 20 exhibitions of his art. “To me, Andre’s work is truly radical,” she writes later in an email. The gallery programme for the next few months includes shows dedicated to a trio of women, Laura Hunt, Lynda Benglis and Tauba Auerbach. For Cooper, the show goes on.

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